Monday afternoon, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean announced that he was running for president to promote health care, child development, and fiscal responsibility. "But most importantly, I wanted my party to stand up for what we believe again!" shouted Dean. To his legions of supporters, he pleaded, "You have the power to take back the Democratic Party!" Those are good lines, and they got the applause he wanted. But they're for show. Dean isn't nearly the left-winger his fans or critics imagine.
For months, Dean has accused his Democratic rivals of caving to the right. He scolds them for supporting the Iraq war resolution, accepting $350 billion in additional deficit-era tax cuts, and voting for President Bush's underfunded education bill. Dean claims to stand for "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party," unlike Bob Graham, who purports to represent "the electable wing of the Democratic Party." But how exactly do Dean and Graham differ on the war resolution, the tax cuts, and funding the education bill? Not at all.
In his speech, Dean warned of Americans' growing distrust of their government. He accused Bush of forcing localities to "raise property taxes so that income taxes may be cut for those who ran Enron." He derided "a self-described conservative Republican president who creates the greatest deficits in history of America." Good lines again. But if they sound familiar, perhaps that's because they've been said before by Graham, Al Sharpton, and John Kerry. When Dean rebuked politicians who "have slavishly spewed sound bites, copying each other," he could have been talking about himself.
Most of what Dean said on Meet the Press Sunday morning could have been written by the Democratic Leadership Council. He accused Bush of forcing tax hikes and spending too much. He indicated that he'd limit the rate of spending growth and might raise the retirement age. He deferred to states and churches on gun control and gay marriage. At one point, host Tim Russert rapped Dean for calling Dick Gephardt's expensive health care proposal "pie in the sky." Some big spender. Dean's defense of the death penalty in extreme cases was even more eyebrow-raising:
The problem with life without parole is that people get out for reasons that have nothing to do with justice. We had a case where a guy who was a rapist, a serial sex offender, was convicted, then was let out on what I would think and believe was a technicality, a new trial was ordered, and the victim wouldn't come back and go through the second trial. And so the guy basically got time served. … So life without parole doesn't work either.
Executing killers because they might get out on a "technicality"? That isn't just pro-death penalty. It's anti-due-process.
Even Dean's foreign policy views, which do set him apart from Gephardt, Kerry, John Edwards, and Joe Lieberman, aren't that radical. At Sunday's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition forum, Dean said of left-wing candidate Dennis Kucinich, "I don't agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we're in the middle of difficulty with terror attacks." On Meet the Press, Dean gave a perfectly presentable defense of his stated uncertainty that ousting Saddam Hussein was a good thing: "If we can't get our act together in Iraq, and if we can't build Iraq into a democracy, then the alternative is chaos or a fundamentalist regime. That is certainly not a safer situation for the United States." Russert ended up wondering whether Dean had a sufficient "sense of the military." I wonder, too. But mostly, I wonder what the hell that means, and whether it's enough of a basis to label somebody the next George McGovern.